Three Pastors: Life, Death, and Religion in Muslim Iran

In November 1993, not far from ancient Babylon, where Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were pitched into Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace, the Rev. Mehdi Dibaj huddled in a Mazandaran Province prison cell praying about how he could defend himself from capital charges. A compactly built 60-year-old man, his short, salt-and-pepper hair bristled above dark, deep-set eyes and bunchy cheeks. His cell contained a cot, a hole-in-the-floor toilet, a line of small snapshots of his four children, and, under the high window that afforded light, a cross fashioned from twisted palm fronds.

Dibaj was accused of being a Christian—more particularly an “apostate,” one who has given up Islam to accept Christianity. Two years earlier Dibaj wrote to his 17-year-old son Yousef, “If we want to walk close with God, we must go into the fire.”

Since Dibaj was imprisoned the first time in 1983 for 68 days, and beginning with his re-arrest in 1984, the Assemblies of God minister had spent almost ten years behind bars. The few visitors he had been allowed, usually at six-month intervals, always came ready to offer encouragement.

The authorities tried their best to break him. Their first approach was to cajole him back into conformity, telling him they knew him to be a good Muslim at heart. He need only sign a paper to that effect and he could go home.

 

Dibaj had reason to suspect that the interrogating religious authorities really did want him to sign their paper and be on his way. As a member of a family with relatives in the religious hierarchy, Dibaj had become an embarrassment they could no longer afford following the Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. They might have instigated his arrest as a way of demanding his return to the fold of Islam. But since the day in 1953 when he had begun his Christian journey by reading a simple gospel tract, a world of love unconditioned by status considerations had opened up, and he wasn’t tempted to bargain away such freedom.

His wife Azizeh found the authorities’ control irresistible. Threatened with stoning if she did not recant her faith, she unmade her vows, renounced the life they had led with their four children, and allowed herself to be given to a proper Muslim husband.

The beatings and mock executions Dibaj suffered were at least of limited duration. When he began his two years of solitary confinement, however, in a three-yard square, unlit cell, he thought he understood the eternity of the damned.

It had taken him a month or more before he understood how available the Lord was to him in solitary. At first he kept formal times of prayer, and then began learning to let God keep him company from moment to moment. He tried to describe this later, and all he could say was that God had performed many miracles for him.

Twice before, in 1982 and 1986, the courts had convicted him of apostasy and sentenced him to death. Each time he had chosen to appeal the sentence to the high court, as was his right. In these appeals he pointed out that there is nothing in the Qur’an that explicitly requires the death of an apostate. Rather, the practice comes from a few scattered Islamic traditions. There must be a shubha, or element of doubt, as to the appropriateness of any conviction for an act that was not a crime at the time it was committed. He had been a Christian since 1953. No part of the sharia—the Islamic legal code being invoked against him—had been in effect until after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The criminal code was amended to make apostasy a capital offense only that year, 1993.

As Dibaj sat in his cell and prayed, his thoughts began to center on the stark truth: The authorities wanted to take his life because he was a Christian. Did he mean to deny this or compromise his stand by legal maneuvering? Like the saints of the second and third centuries, Justin and Tertullian, Dibaj chose to defend himself by writing an apologia—a reasoned explanation—of the Christian faith itself.

And so he began.

With all humility, I express my gratitude to the Judge of all heaven and earth for this precious opportunity, and with brokenness I wait upon the Lord to deliver me from this court trial according to His promises. I also beg the honored members of the court present to listen with patience to my defense and with respect for the Name of the Lord.

In 1993 the several power centers of the Iranian Islamic Revolution—the clergy, the judiciary, and the Ministry of Information—through SAVAMA (the secret police) directed both a legislative effort and a campaign of intimidation against the evangelical Christian community. Many among the most powerful players in the Islamic Revolution had decided that Iran’s pure Islamic state was being compromised by the growing numbers of Christians.

In May the government required that all shopkeepers post signs stating religious affiliation, a significant step toward isolating religious minorities, the beginning of a commercial apartheid. The next month, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance approached all the Christian churches to warn them not to evangelize Muslims. This demand had little effect on Christian communions like the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox who ministered almost exclusively to ethnic communities and conducted their services in the languages of these peoples. But the measure struck directly at the heart of the evangelical community, as it was intended.

The sharia—the most conservative of Islamic legal codes that provided in its huddud, or “criminal code,” a section for the stoning of adulterous women and the mutilation of thieves, as well as the death of apostates—was becoming the law of the land. The traditions of Muslim tolerance, especially for Christians and Jews as “people of the book,” faded away as extremist elements became ravenous for scapegoats. A harbinger of things to come occurred in 1990 when Rev. Hossein Soodmand was hanged in Mashad on charges of proselytizing, apostasy, and operating an illegal Christian bookstore and church.

They say, “You were a Muslim and you have become a Christian.” No, for many years I had no religion. After searching and studying I accepted God’s call and I believed in the Lord Jesus Christ in order to receive eternal life. People choose their religion but a Christian is chosen by Christ. He says, You have not chosen me but I have chosen you. From when? Before the foundation of the world.

Because of Dibaj’s impending trial and the evangelical community’s widespread persecution, Rev. Haik Hovsepian-Mehr asked for an appointment with the director for Minorities’ Affairs at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. As chairman of the Protestant Council (a body representing all of Iran’s Protestant denominations) and superintendent of the Assemblies of God, Hovsepian-Mehr often represented the interests of the evangelical community before government officials. The officials began calling him “Bishop Haik,” which his fellow Protestant clergy soon adopted.

Bishop Haik was a dynamo, with a short frame built like a clenched fist. His potato-shaped face gave him a comfortable, avuncular look, and he might have been mistaken for a shopkeeper but for his clerical collar and sharkskin suit. He came alive in conversation; his arching eyebrows, long, sharply tipped nose, and mobile lips lent an extraordinary range of expression to his naturally dramatic speech.

Bishop Haik’s appointment with the director took place on a cold, early December afternoon in the Ministry building on Sepah Street. He remembered his four interrogations by SAVAMA. Although today’s appointment came about by his own request, he felt almost as nervous.

A half-hour past the appointed time, Bishop Haik was ushered into the director of Minorities’ Affairs’ office. The tall, slight young man was fully bearded. He wore a white, muslin turban, a flowing camel-hair robe, and a white, pleated, collarless shirt with a black onyx stick pin. He stood at the side of his desk for a brief moment to extend his greetings.

He then retreated behind his desk, saying, “Just another moment while I finish this note.” He pulled his chair over to the corner table on which his computer sat. He kept Bishop Haik waiting another five minutes as he scratched his beard and pecked out another sentence. Then, after leaning back in his chair and inspecting the still-unfinished note, he finally turned around and scooted his chair back behind his desk, where he lined up two stacks of paper and opened his black appointment calendar. “What business have we today?” he asked Bishop Haik.

“As I told your appointment secretary,” Bishop Haik said, “we have many things to discuss.”

“We’ll need to cover only the most important, I’m afraid. When you made the appointment, my schedule looked more open. The days have a way of filling up.” He cocked his head and put a hand to his throat below his beard, pulling the skin and beard away from his sharp Adam’s apple.

“The welfare of the people, the poor, is always the most important issue, as I’m sure you’ll agree,” Bishop Haik said, beginning with a common strand of their theologies. “In Mashad, Gorgan, Kermanshah, Isfahan—all over the country my people are being interrogated, often beaten.”

The director drew back in his chair and stared at Bishop Haik. First composure, then contempt, then indictment came into his young, clear brown eyes. “That’s a broad charge. One I know nothing about . . . But I do want to know this. Are these truly your people? Are they Armenians?”

“In some cases. In all cases they are people who have been attending our churches.”

“If they are Muslims they need to return to Islam. For their own good. You know the consequences of apostasy. They become dead to their families.”

Bishop Haik had to bite back a smart reply. He wondered how much emotion had registered in his own eyes. “I’m sure you’ve read UN Special Investigator Pohl’s report,” Bishop Haik said. “The one from this past July. The world knows of the growing persecution of the evangelical church here. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which has been ratified by Iran, states that no one should have his freedom to adopt a religion impaired. The world wants to know why Iran is not abiding by this agreement. Shouldn’t our community be able to ask the same question?”

“What I believe some within the government want to know, Mr. Hovsepian-Mehr,” the director said, “is why your sect refuses to abide by last June’s agreement not to proselytize. It’s well-known that your group is seeking to ensnare Muslims. Even the most direct actions of the authorities must be considered merciful under these circumstances. Jesus himself cautioned us to fear those who can kill the spirit, the soul. Are Muslims wrong for guarding the souls of their people?”

The director’s allusion caught Bishop Haik off guard. How much did he know of Christianity? “Our faith, Director,” Haik said, “compels us to share it with others, just as yours does. We coerce no one. All Iranians are hospitable to guests. When guests come to us, we speak in their language, we offer them the best we have.”

The director glanced away, all the way back toward his corner computer. “Soft words, but they will not help me serve your interests. You know how things stand.”

“Perhaps if Investigator Pohl were invited back into the country,” Bishop Haik said, “his influence could help you reinstitute greater protections for our people.”

“Investigator Pohl? You spoke of hospitality. Mr. Pohl has abused ours, we feel. We do not need such outside influences. To be frank, these international accords, shaped as they are by Western hegemony, mean little to us. We have surer guides ourselves.” He glanced at the dominating portrait of Ayatollah Khomeini hanging on the wall.

Bishop Haik remembered Dibaj. “Perhaps we have not been as careful as we might have been—in our ministry, our sharing of the faith. But there is one matter that we have found agreement upon in the past. At least in terms of what suits both communities’ long-term interests.”

“Reverend Dibaj?”

“Yes, Reverend Dibaj. His case is before the court again. With the law amended he may be in great danger.”

“A danger of his own making.”

“But 45 years ago, when Iran was so different.”

The director folded his hands and looked at them as if he offered up a parting gift after all. “I think everyone wishes this matter resolved,” he said. “I will look into the new developments.”

Bishop Haik’s mouth was dry. “I have taken up enough of your time then. The evangelical Christian church is not Iran’s enemy. Our Lord’s kingdom continues not to be of this world.”

“Take that admonition of his holiness Christ as seriously as possible then,” the director warned. “At present Iran is not the place for another crusade, not even an evangelical one. It will be a long time before Mr. Billy Graham comes here.”

Soon afterward, Bishop Haik learned the effect of his visit. The director of Minorities’ Affairs wrote an article for a local Tehran newspaper stating: “At the moment, there is not a single person in our prisons who has been jailed for his personal or religious beliefs.”

Bishop Haik suspected worse might be coming. The director soon confirmed Haik’s suspicion by demanding that all Iran’s Christian churches write letters to the United Nations attesting to the full religious freedom they enjoyed.

I have been charged with “Apostasy”! The invisible God who knows our hearts has given assurance to us Christians that we are not among the apostates who will perish but among the believers so that we may save our lives. In Islamic Law an apostate is one who does not believe in God, the prophets or the resurrection of the dead. We Christians believe in all three!

Four days before Christmas, December 21, 1993, Dibaj’s verdict arrived via fax at Bishop Haik’s office. He was found guilty of apostasy and sentenced to be executed.

Haik slammed his hand down onto the fax table. He could hardly believe this.

Immediately, he worried that Dibaj’s own reaction would prove almost as troubling as the court’s decision. Dibaj had long talked of martyrdom. He never had any understanding of what his own heroic gestures might cost the larger church. (Bishop Haik was remembering those times when the authorities gave Dibaj medical furloughs, sending him off with broad hints that he take flight. Dibaj always appeared promptly back at the prison at the appointed time.)

Bishop Haik wanted Dibaj to appeal and do so quickly. The other Protestant ministers were much like Bishop Haik himself—middle-aged men with families to support. The Protestant Council expected Bishop Haik to keep the situation from devolving into open conflict, although they knew such a time might come. But now? Over the intransigent if admirable Dibaj? Haik’s diplomatic instincts told him to keep managing things; not to throw down any gauntlets.

Bishop Haik dispatched a communication to Dibaj, urging him to appeal.

Dibaj’s return letter, although full of spiritual encouragement, embraced the sentence—at least on its surface. “When they gave me the verdict,” Dibaj wrote, “my heart was filled with joy because I saw that my name would be listed with those martyred for their faith in Jesus Christ.”

Dibaj appended to this letter his immediate response to the court, in which he made five stunning requests:

To Public Punitive Court of Sari: Ref. to the verdict 1766-72

With greetings, I, Christian prisoner Mehdi Dibaj, Son of Hassan, with respect to the Name of God and the faith in Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, accept the court verdict with joy and peace. Please:

1.            Expedite the process of carrying out the sentence.

2.            Submit my body to Babol Medical College for their medical use.

3.            Allow the cross to remain around my neck.

4.            Before carrying out the sentence allow Holy Communion to be given to me by Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr and Reverend Vartan Avanesyan.

5.            I donate my belongings to the church and give my children into the hands of God who is able to keep them safe so that they grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Bishop Haik urged Dibaj’s son Yousef to visit with his father in prison. In case Dibaj had been prevented from preparing an appeal, his fellow clergy wrote one up and sent it along with the young man.

The response that came back through Yousef was unequivocal. “Please tell Brother Haik and all who pray for me,” he wrote, “that I believe this is my hour of trial like Abraham. I will not bow before the worldly people and beg them for my release or forgiveness! I am quite ready for execution. This is a privilege that no one has the right to take away from me!”

Yousef further reported that he had spoken with the judge, who said, “Since he has written his will and delivered it to us and has asked us to hasten the time of his execution, no one can stop it. Even the UN cannot help his case.”

Since the sentence had been handed down on December 21 and Dibaj had effectively waived his right to appeal, his execution could be carried out in another week or two.

The good and kind God reproves and punishes all those whom He loves. He tests them in preparation for heaven. The God of Daniel, who protected his friends in the fiery furnace, has protected me for nine years in prison and all the bad happenings have turned out for our good and gain, so much so that I am filled to overflowing with joy and thankfulness.

On January 9, Bishop Haik received a fax at his home office. It came through Cyprus from his main contact in the United States, Ebrahim “Abe” Ghaffari. One of the men whom Haik had mentored, Ghaffari ran a support organization, Iranian Christians International, that directed aid to the Iranian evangelical church. Ghaffari had learned that Dibaj’s execution might be imminent. Soodmand had been hanged before the larger world knew of his plight. Should Ghaffari publicize Dibaj’s case? Or was Bishop Haik already employing his own quiet diplomacy?

At that moment Bishop Haik’s wife, Takoosh, came into the office to call her husband to dinner. He would be there in a moment, he said, and handed her the fax.

He watched her reaction as she read. Lately, she had been wearing her dark hair down to her shoulders. The style always reminded him of the early days of their marriage. That period had not been carefree either, as a car accident took the life of their first child and almost crippled both of them. The three children of the missionary friends riding with them also died. Their marriage had been forged in a holocaust, but they never stopped enjoying one another’s company.

“What will you do?” she asked.

‘The situation—I mean the whole situation, not just this—it’s getting worse day by day.” Bishop Haik chose his words carefully, even in his own home office, as he was sure it was bugged. “All the outside organizations counsel patience— the denomination and those ecumaniacs at the World Council. But I’m wondering if we have been too patient.”

She nodded slowly. “I think Ebrahim’s right,” she said, shaking the fax paper.

“But he’s not the one to do it, you know.”

They looked at one another as husbands and wives do. Had the time truly come for heroic gestures? Was he prepared to make one? He must do what he could for Dibaj and the church without regard for the personal consequences, otherwise his life had been a sham. “Perhaps you should consider visiting Aunt Tasbi,” he said. This was their code for emigrating. As the persecution had grown worse over the past several years, Haik and Takoosh had agreed that the children and she should emigrate whenever she thought best.

“Will you come, too, when you can?”

He shook his head.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to open the window,” he replied. The world must know what’s going on in Iran. No more stumbling threats, but vigorous and direct action in the hope that he could win this fight, not only for his Lord but for his wife and family as well.

Christ has asked me to deny myself and be His fully surrendered follower, and not fear people even if they kill my body.

Two hours later, on that same day, January 10, Ghaffari went into his file-crammed office and found a fax: Bishop Haik’s response to his query. He was shocked by what he read. Bishop Haik had written an open letter to his global contacts, from Norway to London to South Korea. He sent it to the major human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch and even Investigator Pohl at the United Nations.

Bishop Haik detailed the specifics of “Brother Dibaj’s” case, then provided background on the persecution being suffered by the entire Iranian evangelical church, in Mashad, Isfahan, Kermanshah, and elsewhere. He laid the blame squarely on the Iranian authorities.

All of this shook Ghaffari. As a college student in Oregon, he read the Christian Scriptures and felt drawn to the faith. He knew of no Iranian Muslim converts, though, except through books. The Christians in his hometown, Neyshabour, were the ones who owned the liquor stores and ran the movie theaters. It took him three years to decide firmly that he believed in Christianity and was willing to pay the price—all the while hoping the price wouldn’t be too high.

Ghaffari and his bride, Marie, returned to Iran in the summer of 1971. While touring the countryside, they set out for Mashad, but couldn’t find transport other than a minibus that went only as far as Gorgan. It was the time of spiritual pilgrimage called hajj. The minibus dropped them off in Gorgan in the middle of the night. They knocked on the door of one inn and then another. Everyone said they were full; go find another place to sleep.

Ghaffari and Marie had heard about Gorgan’s Bishop Haik from an Armenian missionary. At one o’clock in the morning, Marie finally persuaded Ghaffari to approach his door.

That night, they slept on the Persian carpet behind the church’s pulpit since Bishop Haik had other guests as well. Ghaffari told Marie they would get up early in the morning and be on their way, suspicious of an Armenian who evangelized Muslims.

Instead, Ghaffari and Marie spent three days with Bishop Haik and his wife. Ghaffari would never forget driving out with Bishop Haik to the flat-roofed, mud-brick villages of peasants in the surrounding area. The pastor stopped here and there along the roads to talk with people, chatting about the harvest, their family’s prospects. The charismatic way he struck up these conversations and how quickly they led to deep exchanges of religious views was astonishing. Ghaffari had never known an Armenian with such a heart for Iranians. Might he one day be able to share his faith with his fellow Iranians as well?

Thirteen years later, back in the United States, Ghaffari would leave a successful academic career as a business professor specializing in organization theory and labor relations to found Iranian Christians International. His mentor, Bishop Haik, had become his colleague and partner in ministry.

I would rather have the whole world against me but know that the Almighty God is with me, be called an apostate but know that I have the approval of the God of glory, because man looks at the outward appearance but God looks at the heart, and for Him who is God for all eternity nothing is impossible. All power in heaven and on earth is in His hands.

The love of Jesus has filled all my being and I feel the warmth of His love . . . God, who is my glory and honor and protector, has put His seal of approval upon me through His unsparing blessings and miracles.

On January 16, Ghaffari picked up the phone and heard the ocean-in-a-seashell sound of a long-distance call coming through. Then two clicks, and “Ebrahim! Ebrahim”

“Yes. Yes? Who . . .”

There was Persian music playing in the background and many voices. “He is free! Mehdi is free! They released him.” “Haik?”

“Yes, this is Haik. Ebrahim, it’s true. Had you heard already? They’ve released Dibaj. He’s here with us. And some of the brothers and sisters. We are here celebrating. Praying and celebrating!”

“How?”

“They just let him out. He had to sign some papers saying he would stay nearby. His charges haven’t been dismissed—that’s important for people to know. We have to keep up the campaign. But it’s working. They’ve released him.”

“Is he well? How does he look?”

“You should see. Maybe we should all spend some time in prison. It’s the next best thing to a resurrection!”

“You think they’ll let him stay out? Is the danger passed?”

“Well, this is still Iran, my friend. They made him write a letter of ‘thanks’ to the judicial authorities for their leniency. He also had to promise to return to court at any time for questioning. But I don’t see what they can do now that he’s free again and the world’s watching.”

Ghaffari’s own joy was tempered by thoughts he was reluctant to express. “You should continue to be careful,” he said. “Maybe more careful now than ever.” This transcontinental phone celebration was far from careful.

“I don’t know,” Bishop Haik said. “Perhaps we were careful too long. The Lord gave us courage and is blessing the steps we have taken.”

“It’s still a shadowed valley,” Ghaffari said, wondering what the call monitors would make of the biblical allusion.

“Shall I fear evil then?” Haik asked.

Now because God does whatever He desires, who can separate us from the love of God? Or who can destroy the relationship between the creator and the creature or defeat a heart that is faithful to His Lord? He will be safe and secure under the shadow of the Almighty!

On Wednesday, January 19, Bishop Haik left home for the Mehrabad Airport in west Tehran to pick up two Armenian women arriving from Isfahan who were to leave for a conference in England the next day. His office soon received a call from the arriving party wondering where Bishop Haik might be.

By the end of a long, agonizing day, they could no longer deny his probable abduction and notified the police. The police reported they had no information on his whereabouts. How could this be, his family wondered, since he had been under the government’s 24-hour surveillance?

Ten days after Bishop Haik disappeared, his family received a phone call from the Tehran Office of Investigation. Bishop Haik’s body had been found days earlier. His assailants had left it by a police station located on Old Shemran Road in Tehran. The Office of Investigation had a photograph of the corpse and wanted a family member to make an identification.

When Bishop Haik’s son Joseph looked at the photograph, he saw many of the 27 stab wounds that caused his father’s death. The photograph also showed stitches on the abdomen that the coroner’s office attributed to an autopsy.

Joseph asked how and when the body would be released to the family.

But the police did not actually have the body in their possession. Bishop Haik was already buried in an Islamic cemetery, Beheshta Zahra, just outside Tehran. They claimed not to have the authority to exhume the body, even though a Christian corpse desecrates Islamic holy ground.

The family would have to appeal for the exhumation to be carried out, and eventually the district court of Shahre Rey (on President Rafsanjani’s personal recommendation, sources reported) ordered for this to be done.

The next week Iran’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations stated that “a suspect has been arrested and is under investigation” for Bishop Haik’s murder, and that police were searching for accomplices. The report specified that the prosecutor in Tehran had ordered a full investigation “to arrest and bring the perpetrators to justice.” The report speculated that Bishop Haik was at the “wrong place at the wrong time” and was probably killed by “unknown assailants with unknown motives.”

The authorities refused comment, however, on why they initially failed to identify the body of a well-known public figure; why no photograph of Bishop Haik’s body was published in the newspapers, as is standard practice with unidentified victims; why they failed to continue calling the phone numbers of church associates found in Haik’s pockets.

Most in the human-rights community concluded that Bishop Haik had been murdered by a group of contract killers on order from the Iranian secret police. He was quickly buried, they guessed, as a cover up and to hide traces of torture. Who could doubt the cause of death of a man stabbed 27 times?

Our refuge is the mercy seat of God who is exalted from the beginning. I know in whom I have believed, and He is able to guard what I have entrusted to Him to the end until I reach the Kingdom of God, the place where the righteous shine like the sun.

On the day of Bishop Haik’s funeral, the police prevented a formal cortege by requiring three-minute intervals between all cars arriving at the cemetery. They carried their automatic weapons at the ready among the graveside mourners and confiscated video and still cameras, preventing any photographic record of the event.

Three hundred church members packed the small church service. Then more than 2,000 mourners stood for three hours in bitterly cold weather at the grave to honor Bishop Haik, including the ambassador of Norway and innumerable Muslims. When a Roman Catholic priest threw his handful of dirt on the coffin, he declared, tears in his eyes, “This man is a saint and a martyr.”

Dibaj commented, “I should have died, not Brother Haik.”

They object to my evangelizing. But, “If you find a blind person near a well and keep silent then you have sinned” (a Persian poem). It is our duty, as long as the door of God’s mercy is open, to convince evil doers to turn from their sinful ways and find refuge in Him in order to be saved from the wrath of a Righteous God and from the coming dreadful punishment.

Despite Bishop Haik’s fate, Dibaj undertook his pastoral journey to Iran’s evangelical congregations. About his presence, one Iranian Christian remarked, “From the day he came out we all noticed how his face was shining. The light and love of Christ just shone from his face. God had truly made him a saint.” The sight of so many who had become Christians moved him to tears. He now understood how he had survived his years in prison; the new converts were the face of his strength.

Of course, the authorities did not forget about Dibaj or cease their surveillance and intimidation of the evangelical church. In April, a fatwa was issued against Dibaj in a Tehran newspaper, calling for his execution. Like the fatwa against novelist Salman Rushdie, this declaration meant that anyone who took Dibaj’s life would be acting at the religious leaders’ request.

Surveillance of the churches increased. A Muslim imam as well as armed intelligence agents attended every worship service at Bishop Haik’s old church in Tehran.

Then in June, church leaders began receiving terrifying phone calls informing them that the government could no longer protect them. They should be on their guard or get themselves out of the country, if possible. The threat was confirmed by a mole high up in the government: A “hit list” existed, according to this source, and the names of top evangelical leaders were on it.

I am a Christian, a sinner who believes Jesus has died for my sins on the cross and who by His Resurrection and victory over death, has made me righteous in the presence of the Holy God. The true God speaks about this fact in His Holy Word, the Gospel. Jesus means Savior “because He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus paid the penalty of our sins by His Own blood and gave us a new life so that we can live for the glory of God by the help of the Holy Spirit and be like a dam against corruption, be a channel of blessing and healing, and be protected by the love of God.

During the week of June 20-24, Dibaj held a Christian conference with a small group of believers in the Sharon Garden in Karaj, a suburb of Tehran.

When we try out our wings of faith, Dibaj said, we may find ourselves plunging downward, helpless and frightened. Even in these moments, we are secure in the Lord’s care.

On Friday afternoon, at the conference’s end, Dibaj left to celebrate his daughter Fereshteh’s 17th birthday. The entire extended family was taking the occasion to stage a reunion—the first such gathering since their father’s imprisonment ten years before.

Dibaj never arrived.

Therefore I am not only satisfied to be in prison for the honor of His Holy Name but am ready to give my life for the sake of Jesus my Lord and enter His kingdom sooner, the place where the elect of God enter everlasting life.

On July 5, police informed Dibaj’s family that they had come across his body in a Tehran park. They had actually been searching for the killer of Tateos Mikaelian, another Protestant pastor and Bishop Haik’s replacement as chairman of the Protestant Council, whose body had been found days earlier.

Officials claimed Dibaj had been stabbed to death, but others noted rope burns around his neck, as if he had also been hanged. The police refused to release either body to anyone, insisting on custody until their interment.

He is our Savior and He is the Son of God. To know Him means to know eternal life. I, a useless sinner, have believed in His beloved person and all His words and miracles recorded in the Gospel, and I have committed my life into His hands. Life for me is an opportunity to serve Him, and death is a better opportunity to be with Christ.

The truth about the 1994 killings of the three pastors has begun to come out. In 1999, prodded by the work of investigative journalists like Akbar Ganji and Emadedin Baghi, Iran’s president Muhammad Khatami forced the intelligence ministry to own up to the 1998 murders of four dissidents— two writers and a reform-minded politician and his wife. Fifteen agents were found guilty of planning and carrying out the murders, and the intelligence minister, Dorri Najafabadi, resigned. In the course of these disclosures, intelligence agents confessed to carrying out many other murders as well, including those of Bishop Haik Hovsepian-Mehr, Mehdi Dibaj, and Tateos Mikaelian.

Unfortunately, those who were suspected of ordering the killings, such as former intelligence minister Ali Fallahian and the high-ranking judge Mohseni Ejei, were never seriously investigated. The most senior ministry official to be arrested, Saeed Emami, a possible source of countless other disclosures, was said to have “committed suicide” while in jail.

The sacrifice of the three pastors and many others within the evangelical community has not been in vain, despite the church’s underground status. The blood of the martyrs remains the seed of the church. In 1977 there were only 2,700 evangelicals in Iran out of a population of 45 million. Of these, only 300 were former Muslims. Today, there are close to 55,000 believers, of whom 27,000 are from Muslim backgrounds. About half live in Iran, and the remainder are dispersed among more than 30 countries. The large Christian Iranian émigré community contains a dynamic strength that replenishes and extends the work of those in Iran itself.

Abe Ghaffari, as he works for the welfare of Iranian Christians all over the world from his base in Colorado, remembers a time prior to the Islamic Revolution when Iranians were almost completely closed to Christianity. Paradoxically, according to Ghaffari, the Islamic Revolution has actually opened many Iranians’ minds to Christ. He now sits in his office and receives transcontinental phone calls from Iranians asking, “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

Afterword: On September 26, 2006, Fereshteh Dibaj, Mehdi Dibaj’s daughter, and her husband were arrested by the secret police. They have been released on bail but are still in great danger.

By

Harold Fickett is the author of novels, biographies, and works of spirituality, including The Holy Fool, The Living Christ, and Dancing with the Divine. He was a co-founder of the journal Image, and has collaborated with Charles Colson on several books, including The Faith and The Good Life. Fickett has contributed to such publications as The National Review, Crisis, Christianity & Literature, Decision, The World & I, Publishers Weekly, The New Oxford Review, Books & Culture, Leadership, and Christianity Today.

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